Mekhi Phifer on Faith, Career, and Former Aspirations to be a Rapper
Well-known actor and lesser-known former rap artist Mekhi Phifer spoke to rapzilla.com about his latest project “Canal Street,” his previous music career, and his vast experiences in the movie industry.
In Phifer’s extensive career, he has played an emcee, DJ, doctor, FBI agent, cop, drug dealer, and now for the first time, a lawyer. His willingness to break the mold and shoot for a variety of roles has led to a respected fruitful career.
“I’ve built a body of work. If I have a movie that I read that doesn’t coincide with my journey and doesn’t make sense to my brand and the way that I portray characters, I have to pass it up because it’ll be a detriment to what I do,” said the actor. “When you make a film you immortalize yourself, so I’m very picky in the roles I choose to portray. You have to be mindful of what you do if you have a career.”
He continued, “You are what you put out. I look to have integrity to do the work that I do. I can do a movie just to do a movie, but if it sucks they are going to look at me a certain way.”
The results speak for themselves as people still come up to him to talk about music videos he was in during the 90s that became timeless hit songs. He then said, “8 Mile” and “Paid in Full” were done 15 years ago and they are still relevant today.
At this point in his career, the most prominent ambition is to tell stories that matter and work with people who respect the legacy of film.
Phifer believes that “Canal Street” could be one of these “timeless” moments on film. The theme of the movie is even more important as it has to do with what is, unfortunately, happening in today’s society all too often.
“It’s about a kid who gets accused of a murder. It has a mystery feel to it,” said Phifer. “I play AJ Canton, who is the assistant state’s attorney. Obviously, a black man from the Southside of Chicago and worked his way through the ranks while also running for mayor.”
He said the evidence against the character of Kholi Styles divides the entire community a bit.
“We address all of that,” he stated. “It’s very much a social type of film with some spirituality. It’s relevant to all communities of people. It was something different than what I have read for in the past.”
The film has an element of faith because people turn to God in the hopes of getting justice and being able to live a prosperous life, he explained. There’s a faith based element but it’s not preachy to him so he wouldn’t call the film faith-based.
“Faith is a big part of our culture, we needed it in order to get through the hardship of slavery, racism, and discrimination. People lean toward that because it gives them hope,” Phifer shared.
The over 20-year-acting veteran loves the challenge found in doing independent films.
“A lot of times the independents have a lot more substance. It’s not just black and white, there’s a lot in between,” he revealed. “There are lives that need to be explored and discovered and as an artist, it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to challenge yourself in that way. For me, this is the first time I’ve played a lawyer and dealt with the courtroom drama. Sometimes these roles are the most fulfilling.”
Independent movies don’t take the “pop approach” that Hollywood may take said, Phifer.
“This particular film invokes a certain amount of thought. Often times a big budget film leaves you unfulfilled, there’s commentary to be had after this film is over,” he shared. “I never met Rhyan (director) before. I never saw his work, but when I read the film and just talking to him, I like to give people who have that integrity a shot too. I wanted him to have the opportunity to work with some really good people and be involved with the script in how it comes across. We are making something special. I think he did a great job.”
Shifting gears, in what seems like a lifetime ago, Phifer was an aspiring rapper from New York City. He managed to get a record deal in 1993 and was in the studio working on an album and also pursuing an electrical engineering degree in college.
His life suddenly changed when he landed the role of Ronald “Striker” Dunham in “Clockers.”
Up until that point, he had a couple of small things here and there, but “Clockers” was a Spike Lee movie that also starred Harvey Keitel.
“I never stopped working since, so my passions shifted. As much as I loved music, I really loved film,” he stated. “To rap about the things I was growing up doing, it wasn’t really in line with the life I was living once I got into film. I just didn’t chase it anymore. I was already doing what I wanted to do in a big way and that fulfilled me.”
He said everything happened so fast that nothing came of his deal or recorded music. Phifer is proud of the music he made even though none has ever been released. Admittedly, he said if this had been done now you most likely would have seen some tracks on Spotify.
However, audiences did get to see Phifer rap on screen.
“I got to rap in ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Carmen: A Hip Hopera’, and in ‘8 Mile’,” he said. “Beyonce’s dad wanted to sign me when ‘Carmen’ came out and wanted to introduce me to Dr. Dre.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t the direction he wanted to go. “I’m a grown man, I’m about to be 43. As far as rapping now, I’m like, ‘C’mon, stop playing’. I do love good music so it’s definitely a part of my life though.”
As far as the “8 Mile” movie is concerned. Phifer says it’s one of the greatest music movies ever made and some of the most fun he ever had shooting.
“When we started shooting that movie I was 26. Eminem was at the height of his career. We shot it in five months in Detroit. He’s an icon in music. I haven’t spoken to him in a few years but you can’t have nothing but respect for him.”
Aside from acting and music, the multi-talented actor is a philanthropist too. He’s an ambassador for Lupus, gives to the Boys and Girls Club, has a charity in Nigeria where he sends 40 kids to college and is all about giving back and being part of something positive.
In his personal life, he’s a family man that likes his privacy.
“I love taking road trips. I jump in an RV and go, sometimes for two weeks at a time,” he said. “Acting is what I do for my profession because it affords me all the things I like to do. I just do what’s relevant to me. I do a lot of stuff, I just don’t post it.”